Updated: Nov 4, 2020
British theatre director, dramaturg, writer and author, Lisa Goldman, talks to playwright and actor Polly Wiseman about her recently published play, Femme Fatale.
What was the impetus behind Femme Fatale — what made you want to write it now? How does a 2019 post # MeToo world impact on the way we view these icons?
It’s still really hard, as a woman, to live an unconventional life and be celebrated for it. I think it’s high time that changed - which is why I wanted to write about Teutonic junkie Nico and ‘feminazi assassin’ Valerie Solanas. Both revolutionaries, in their different ways, their legacy has been all but ignored, in favour of more compliant and prettily-packaged women. But thirty years after they both died, their work continues to inspire artists and activists working today.
As singer with The Velvet Underground, Nico exuded Ice Maiden cool. But she grew to hate her glamorous blond image and in her solo career, dyed her hair brown, became a heroin addict and pioneered a whole new genre of music as the ‘Godmother of Goth’. Clearly, there were dark roots beneath the shiny blond surface. Valerie Solanas is remembered (when she ever is) as the angry psycho who shot Andy Warhol, but she was an influential second wave feminist. When I read her 1968 SCUM Manifesto—Society for Cutting Up Men - I found it both hilarious and utterly relevant. Realising Valerie and Nico had been in the same Warhol movie (I, A Man), an idea started to form: what would happen if I put these two uncompromising characters in a room together? As the 2017/18 revelations of sexual abuse in Hollywood came to light, I started to consider Valerie’s shooting of Andy Warhol as an early # TimesUp moment. The time seemed ripe for a reimagining of two female pop culture icons, battling for control of their own destinies.
But Femme Fatale, is a comedy, albeit a dark and unconventional one. Both these women were outsiders, coping with mental illness, poverty, addiction, abuse and in Valerie’s case, homelessness, begging and sex work—and they used gallows humour as a survival tactic. And it’s a cabaret-play, because I want the characters to be able to interact directly with a modern audience and throw in to relief what’s changed for women and what hasn’t.
What is it about 60s art/politics/culture that you find so fascinating?
There was an innocence to 60s counterculture initially: 'Ooh: let’s all have sex and do drugs and be free!' But by 1967, the Summer of Love had turned dark—Vietnam dragged on and there were peace rallies and race riots on the streets of America. So it’s a time of huge change and turbulence. This was the case in art and fashion, too: a new generation of iconoclasts was reinventing the rules —creating what Diana Vreeland referred to as a Youthquake.
Those 60s ‘Boomers’ built the society we live in now. Our obsession with fame and image - the Cult of Personality - is epitomised by Warhol’s famous prediction, 'In the future, everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.' Unfortunately, personality politics has led to the rise of Trump and Bojo and the repeal of women’s rights. Time for another revolution…?
And what is it that particularly draws you to Nico and Valerie Solanas? Why bring those two women together apart from their obvious connection to Warhol? What do you see as their potential to challenge or change one another or us?
Likeable female characters bore me shitless. Valerie and Nico were outrageous and often unlikeable: basically, they gave zero fucks. That, and the fact that they had such different accents (American/German), tempos and speech patterns, made them a lot of fun to write.
As two contrasting versions of womanhood - the blond, compliant 60s chick and the angry, androgynous activist - they embody different ways of negotiating a man’s world as a woman. Valerie urges Nico to fight for what she wants. Nico makes Valerie understand the price she might pay for expressing her anger.
Female artists not getting their due—being ripped off and then forgotten—is an obsession of mine. As Nico tries to move from muse to artist and Valerie from sex worker to activist, I hope the audience will be reminded how much hasn’t changed. Recent world events remind us we’re still fighting for control of our stories and our bodies.
Would you call this a feminist play? Why/why not? What does that word mean to you? How do you see these women in relation to activism?
Yes, it’s a feminist play. The protagonists are battling for control of their own destinies. They’re not ‘Wife of’, ‘Daughter of’, ‘Mistress of’: they drive the action. Feminism to me is the belief that women are people. Boobs shouldn’t equal ‘other’: we’re 50.8% of the population.
Valerie was an activist: her SCUM Manifesto provokes us to overthrow the tyranny of men. And by shooting Warhol to avenge the theft - or rape - of her work, she enacted the rage of a generation of women, creating arguably the first #TimesUp moment. But by rejecting the support of other feminists (she was the only member of The Society for Cutting Up Men), her revolution was doomed. Nico isn’t an obvious activist - but in negotiating the male-dominated world of rock, and being in the vanguard of a whole new style of music (Goth), I see her as a pioneer.
What were your challenges - moral, legal or otherwise - of writing about real people? What rules did you create for yourself around the 'authenticity' of the work—whatever that means to you?
Legally, you can’t defame the dead - but I wanted to do Nico and Valerie justice. I started with direct quotes: watched videos of interviews and performances, listened to Nico’s albums and read Valerie’s play Up Your Ass and her SCUM Manifesto. I then moved on to secondary sources. Two independent reports of an event or character trait meant I felt ok to use it. Ultimately, Nico and Valerie had to stop being real people and become the characters I needed to tell my story, so I’m careful to say that the play is an imagined meeting—written out of authentic love and respect for them both.
How did you become a playwright? What attracts you to the medium of theatre as opposed to any other art form? What does it offer you?
I was at drama school training to be an actor, went nuts, spent time in loony bins and had to rebuild my life. I set up a theatre company, Fireraisers, and did a callout for scripts: they were pretty bad, so I thought, 'Even I’ve got to be able to write something better than this!' Um, so yeah: hubris, really. I stayed up for 72 hours writing a play, sent it to the Royal Court and got invited to do their young playwright’s course - which is where I met Nathan Evans, director of Femme Fatale. Then I did Soho Theatre young writer’s programme, led rather brilliantly by Lisa Goldman, and she helped me get my first play, Bright, produced there. Got an agent, carried on…
When I was a kid, I loved that Blanche Dubois quote, 'I’ll tell you what I want: I want magic!' I love that theatre is ridiculous and you have to suspend your disbelief. That it’s live and connects you to other people in a room. If you’re part of the show, there’s a brilliant camaraderie - and a collective sense of relief and euphoria when it’s over and nobody died and you all have a drink in your hand!
What would be your advice to a new playwright wanting to get their first play on?
Find a writer’s course at a theatre whose work you like: the venue will be more likely to consider your play. Enter lots of playwrighting competitions. Do scratch nights. See shows, hang around in the bar, try to meet directors and producers. Join online forums such as Bossy (if you identify as female or non-binary) or Playwrighting UK to hear about opportunities. Try Twitter for things like Old Vic Connect, where writers can ask to meet directors and producers. Find your collaborators and supporters.
You perform as well as having written Femme Fatale. How do those processes differ for you? How do they come together in this performance? Was it easier to write the character you were playing or the one that you weren't? How much did you develop Valerie in conjunction with Sophie, the actress who plays her?
Writing is a slog: I’d rather clean the toilet. *Idea for a kick-ass cleaning company: employ a lot of writers on deadlines. It’s a necessary evil for me, to get in to the rehearsal room. Acting is all about immersing yourself in the character and being vulnerable—which is a different kind of hard.
I found it much easier to write Valerie: she’s very outspoken. Sophie Olivia, who plays her, has natural warmth & like-ability, which makes the audience listen to and respect a character who could otherwise be off-puttingly didactic.
Nico’s reserved and secretive and lies her arse off. She’s more unknowable to me, both as a writer and actor. But it’s fascinating to try to get under her skin...
Who is your ideal audience for Femme Fatale? What have been the most surprising or interesting things that audience members have said about the show so far?
My ideal audience: women who remember the 60s and women who barely remember the noughties: I’d like several generations to experience the show together. Anyone who feels like an outsider. Fans of The Velvet Underground and of Nico and Warhol. LGBTQ+ community who may identify with Valerie, feminists of all genders, raging misogynists who bought a ticket by mistake…
Most surprising thing anyone’s said: that the contrast of the American and the European points of view were very pertinent in 2019. I guess the UK is at a crossroads, currently—and perhaps we have a choice to make about who we ally ourselves with and whose values we emulate?
Most interesting things people said: One woman said she could really relate to Valerie’s and Nico’s frustrations at having to ‘manage’ men (Rephrasing your opinion in a way that’s non-threatening to the men in a meeting, for example) 'What could women achieve if they weren’t having to manage men?' is something I’ve certainly thought about in the final draft.
In an early version, a couple of younger women thought the characters talked too much about men. But in the 60s, they controlled literally everything—so feminism was necessarily about dismantling this power structure. But in the final version, I hope I now explore more of what Nico and Valerie achieved in their own rights.
And I want the show to leave a legacy. Alongside the performances, we’re making a new feminist Manifesto for 2019 - and we’d love our audiences and online friends to contribute to it. Use the hashtag # SCUM2019 on Twitter and Instagram, or go to our website www.fireraisers.org.uk to state your demands.
Polly was born in Sussex and at 18, moved to London to train as an actor at RADA. She quickly realised that most of the roles for women were shit, and decided to write some plays where they got more of the fun stuff. She became a member of the Royal Court Young Writers programme, who produced her short play Trying It On (also adapted for BBC TV) and where she met Nathan Evans, the director of Femme Fatale.
She has been Writer-On-Attachment for Birmingham Rep, Theatre Absolute and Theatre Royal Margate. Polly co-founded Fireraisers Theatre Company, which The Guardian called ‘one of the great hopes of modern British Theatre’. A million years ago, she was a style journalist for i-D magazine, The Evening Standard and various others. And for a while, she worked as ‘Door Whore’ Polly Vinyl at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. She lives in East London.
Lisa Goldman is a writer of drama and fiction, a script consultant and author of The No Rules Handbook or Writers. She is an award-winning theatre director, previously Artistic Director and Joint Chief Executive of new writing companies - the Red Room (1995-2006) and Soho Theatre (2006-2010) for whom she developed, directed and produced a substantial body of influential new writing such as Baghdad Wedding, The Bogus Woman, Piranha Heights, Behud, Made in England, Stitching and Hoxton Story.
Femme Fatale tours East Sussex in Autumn 2019 before running at the Omnibus Theatre in London 8-27 October. It is supported by Arts Council England. The play script is published by Inkandescent.